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Marissa Lingen

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Attention policing paradox [Feb. 28th, 2015|12:27 pm]
Marissa Lingen

I was reading this article on attention policing on The Atlantic, talking about major light memes of the week and the reaction against them. And it struck me that the author wasn’t addressing one of the major problems with attention policing, which I saw in action this week, and that is: it backfires.

Authors know this. I have had writers at conventions try to convince me to give bad reviews to their books rather than declining to finish them and staying silent, because they know this: when you talk about something, you draw attention to it, and if you talk about it enthusiastically, you draw more attention to it, regardless of whether your enthusiasm is positive or negative. Sure, the people who read me are more likely to trust me if I say, “Uff da, that was a stinker,” but not 100% likely. Nor am I 100% likely to follow any of your recommendations! If you say, “That book was so boring, it was not worth the time, it was just hundreds of pages of Chinese medieval monetary theory,” why, that’s the book I just picked up to read! That’s music to my ears! So this idea that we don’t pay attention to each other’s recommendations 100%: this is a feature, not a bug.

It’s not that I’m unwilling to give a bad review. But I do think that it’s worth being careful, especially when my reaction is “this book [/movie/TV show/etc.] is okay but overhyped”–because that kind of reaction can contribute to making the work central. It contributes to the feeling that the work is the important one that everyone must discuss–even if they don’t like it.

So yes, on Thursday my social media feeds were full of llamas and whether a badly photographed dress was white and gold or black and blue. But they were also full of people talking about how they weren’t talking about these things. Talking about how they didn’t care. Even more of that came up for the Superbowl, the Emmys, the Oscars. “I am not watching the thing everybody is watching!” said everybody. “Look at me thinking it is not important, and making it more important by keeping it the only topic of discussion.” One of my FB friends posted a little cartoon the morning after one of the Academy Award shows that said, “I did not watch the thing,” and I wrote back, “Too bad, you missed a great hockey game.” Because there is more than one thing. There is always more than one thing.

Telling people, “You should not like the thing you like!” or “You should not care about the thing you care about!” hardly ever works. They already like it. They already care. If you want to shift discussion and attention, it’s time for the tried and true, “Look, the Winged Victory of Samothrace!” What can sometimes work is, “hey, look at this other interesting thing!” Because the other interesting thing engages. It provides its own conversational points–and yes, sometimes these relate back to the first thing that the other person was interested in, that you wish they weren’t. If you were tired of llamas, then hooray, a badly photographed dress came along! And then some people combined the two in ways that they hoped were amusing! Someone said, “But look over here,” and they did, and some of them were wholly diverted from the llamas, and some weren’t.

So yeah, you’d be disappointed if you were hoping that the next big wave of comments would be about Russian/Ukrainian politics or new treatments for bone cancer instead of badly photographed dresses. These two things are not very much equivalent, though, and “STOP TALKING ABOUT LLAMAS” never once got people to talk about bone cancer. Attention is capricious and fickle, but some parts of it are predictable, and that’s one. So if you’re frustrated with the llamas, go craft your comments about your new local cheesemaker, the anime you just fell in love with, or the charity you think is worthy. Make them pithy, make them shiny, make them interesting. Virtue does not always out in the attention economy. You have to help it.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux


[User Picture]From: whswhs
2015-02-28 07:21 pm (UTC)
Of course the fantasy of being Mark Twain demolishing James Fenimore Cooper never ceases to appeal. But Tolkien is still with us despite "Ooh, Those Awful Orcs!" and "Epic Pooh." For that matter Cooper hasn't faded from human memory. Twain might even have helped him survive, as certain poems are remembered primarily because Charles Dodgson parodied them.
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[User Picture]From: auriaephiala
2015-02-28 10:11 pm (UTC)
I don't publish many bad reviews, but I published two in the last 10 days. One was mixed: praising some sections of the musical performance for their skill&artistry, but criticizing the way one performer mumbled, stumbled around the stage, forgot words and kept restarting, and didn't consistently sing the way she was plainly capable of. The next one again praised parts of the show but argued that the group's overall artistic choices were just plain wrong.

I felt justified because these were (relatively) high-profile concerts, these were consistent issues (not just one-of), these musicians probably would be back, and I figured people should be aware of what they were going to hear.

I figure negative reviews are appropriate in this type of case (or similarly when Jo Walton took apart Patterson's bio of Heinlein). But not if it's just not your thing, or you think someone does it better. Or especially if you didn't finish it (unless the reason you didn't was the main point of the review).
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[User Picture]From: desperance
2015-03-01 03:40 am (UTC)
“Look, the Winged Victory of Samothrace!”

When we were in Paris, Karen and I tramped the Louvre explicitly to find her, explicitly so that K could point and exclaim exactly this. (It is not a thing, as far as I am aware, in the UK, this exclaiming.) Happily, I was able to confirm by close examination that she has indeed suffered under a misnomer for lo, this very long time. She is not in fact the Winged Victory of Samothrace; she is the Winged Samothrace of Victory. The winged (as opposed, of course, to the flightless) samothrace is a creature almost forgotten, except in this sole surviving representation: but what a world it was, when samothraces thronged the sky, in their due season!
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-03-01 03:50 am (UTC)
Oh indeed!

The Winged Victory of Samothrace is my canonical example of Better In Person.
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From: swan_tower
2015-03-02 07:30 am (UTC)
It saddened me greatly that when I was there, it was behind a wall because they were carrying out construction/restoration work.
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[User Picture]From: asakiyume
2015-03-02 05:00 am (UTC)
Look, the Winged Victory of Samothrace

One reason why I'll always treasure Bored of the Rings almost as much as the original.
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[User Picture]From: timprov
2015-03-02 10:12 pm (UTC)
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From: tournevis
2015-03-01 04:09 pm (UTC)
As an academic, I am asked to write reviews of academic publications all the time. I am lucky to almost never have had to write a bad review, but I have written several qualified reviews. I try to be as fair as possible, of course, looking at the book on its merits, then qualifying. I have only panned one book, because it wasn't doing what it was claiming to be doing. At all.

In fiction, I only write reviews for my pleasure, so I will generally only write out a review on things I liked. If I didn't like, I usually don't dwell; I state I did not like or was disappointed, the end. There are exceptions. Some things are so craptastic, I want to destroy them. However, that is rare. I have kept the worse novel I have ever read and it is in my library so I can see it and hate it some more.
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[User Picture]From: carbonel
2015-03-02 04:58 am (UTC)
I seem to have missed the llama thing entirely.
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[User Picture]From: asakiyume
2015-03-02 05:06 am (UTC)
Yes, saying "Stop talking about llamas" is like saying "Stop staring this big zit on my face" in terms of ONLY having the power to backfire. Not to mention seeming petulant--especially about things like llamas and dresses. With the zit a person maybe has a right to protest--though the protest is still going to backfire--but with something like the llamas and the dress, why the hell can't people enjoy themselves (in the case of the llamas) or exhaust themselves in argument (in the case of the dress) if that's what they want to do?
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[User Picture]From: wshaffer
2015-03-02 10:21 pm (UTC)
Wait, is that hundreds of pages of Chinese medieval monetary theory a real book or a mere hypothetical? Because if it's real, I need to get it for Daniel. (Assuming he doesn't already have it. But I think if he did, I'd know.)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-03-02 10:44 pm (UTC)
Real book. Link will appear in my book post later today or tomorrow.
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